Atlanta training center funding controversy explodes before final vote

Council members say they still expect the legislation to pass on June 5.

Despite last week’s revelation that taxpayers will be on the hook for more than double the announced cost of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center, council members say the funding legislation will still likely pass with ease.

The Atlanta City Council will vote Monday on the legislation, which increases the city’s contribution to the facility from $31 million to $67 million. The additional funding comes from a “lease back” provision in the city’s lease with the Atlanta Police Foundation that will cost taxpayers $1.2 million annually over the course of the next 30 years.

The funding is essentially to pay for the city’s police officers and firefighters to use the facility for training.

But that additional provision was never fully acknowledged, until Friday when the training center spokeswoman in the mayor’s office confirmed the payments for the first time. The original press release announcing the training center deal said the city would agree to either $30 million toward construction or the lease back.

A spokesman in Mayor Andre Dickens office said Tuesday that the lease back payments are $200,000 per year less than the city currently pays to have its public safety officials trained.

“In the simplest terms to understand, the City is effectively paying off a mortgage versus paying upfront for the new training center,” a statement from the mayor’s office said. “The path of making payments to APF now allows the City to actually own its facilities down the road once the lease with APF ends.”

The mayor’s office also said the lease payments to the police foundation will be used to cover the facility’s operational and maintenance expenses, as well as the debt service on the APF’s $20 million loan.

The discrepancy from the original lease agreement adds another layer to the already controversial vote where City Council is expected to give final approval to the funding legislation — although two members have pledged to vote against it.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached out to all 16 elected members of council. Only four responded and were willing to comment.

Council member Keisha Sean Waites said that she plans on voting against the funding. Waites has previously voiced concern over a lack of transparency surrounding the project plans and the police shooting of environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran.

The murky financial obligations only add another layer, she said.

“I was under the assumption this was a private project which the Atlanta Police Foundation would fund and it was very clear that it would require some city funding,” Waites said. “But I’ve seen this pattern before, we asked for 30 million and then it becomes 60 million.”

Council member Michael Julian Bond, a supporter of the project, said he has been aware of the lease back provision since the beginning.

“A lot of folks who are surprised probably didn’t really get as far into the details as they probably should have,” he said. “But this is the same type of arrangement, in principle, that we’ve done with these other public-private partnerships that the city has done in the past.”

Bond echoed the mayor’s office in that the city is currently paying more to rent out facilities to train police and firefighters than it will pay leasing back the new training center.

“Still it would have been better to have that disclosed earlier so that it doesn’t come off as a surprise or a shock to people,” he said.

Nearly 300 people packed the city council chambers for the public comment period of the last meeting, and spoke out against the 85-acre public safety training facility. Council President Doug Shipman at times struggled to keep the chamber under control as the audience cheered for speakers.

The news about the additional taxpayer contribution to the project has added more fuel to the call from training center opponents for council to vote down the financial agreement. Organizers against the project are planning another “mass mobilization” to City Hall next Monday.

“Plan to come, plan to speak and plan to stay until the vote,” fliers read.

Shipman said he is preparing for a packed room again.

“I’m trying to make sure that everyone understands not only what the funding requests is, but the overall project and some of these broader questions about how it gets executed,” he said.

Shipman said the committee meeting was the first time council members saw a complete funding plan.

“There has been discussion over the years — statements made by a mayor here or the head of AFP there — this is the first time we’ve actually seen the proposal,” Shipman said. “At the end of the day, I’m just reacting to the proposal on its face.”

Waites said that despite continued opposition, she still believes that the legislation has enough support to pass easily.

“I think it will be a very clean passage, I think which is most unfortunate, I really wish the administration would do something different,” she said. “Ultimately, this decision really rests with the mayor and his administration and I think they’re pretty dug in on this.”

Council member Jason Dozier said he recognizes the need for a public safety training center but has been opposed to the project from the beginning. Dozier said that he recognizes that the lease back agreement reduces the city’s costs of leasing facilities.

“However, that’s not what has been explicitly communicated to the public,” he said in an email statement. “And any discrepancy in costs, once the lease back expenses are considered, is a matter that demands further scrutiny.”